When we think of influencers now, we think of 20-somethings on Instagram. But in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the biggest influencer in the world, at least in the world of popular culture, was an 80-year old British novelist. Agatha Christie wrote murder mystery novels and her books were so popular, they were turned into movies (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile), plays (The Mouse Trap, the longest-running play in the world, still playing in London) and influenced every other area of entertainment, including a hugely popular television series, Murder, She Wrote. Ordinary people could even play along, as murder-mystery themed dinners were a thing and there was even a popular whodunit-themed board game, Clue, which was also made into a movie. The Christie effect even filtered down to kids’ books, as The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, all mysteries for pre-teens, were as popular as Harry Potter is today.
I’ve often wondered why the classic whodunit murder mystery went out of style as a genre. There just doesn’t seem to be an appetite for it anymore, as clearly evidenced by the poor box office showing of the latest Christie adaptation, a remake of Murder on the Orient Express in 2017. Tastes seem to have moved on to prefer content more thrilling, more violent, and less thoughtful than the Christie “everybody had a motive, now let’s figure out who did it” model, which followed a clear and predictable structure: there’s a murder, there are many suspects—all of whom had motive and opportunity—and there’s a clever detective who solves the mystery. And sometimes the butler did do it.
Well, for those of us who miss that style of storytelling, you will be happy to know that Agatha Christie is back, at least in spirit, in the new Rian Johnson movie Knives Out. A whodunit featuring an all-star cast, Knives Out is a deliciously satisfying nod to a lost genre while being a thrilling, hilarious and absurdly modern commentary on our times and human nature.
I am so tempted to just leave it there, because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s experience of this movie. Everyone should go in knowing as little as possible, so you can be as surprised as possible. But there is no way to not talk about a few things (no spoilers, I promise).
First of all, writer/director Rian Johnson is a genius. But we knew this already, right? The talented auteur has been rising steadily since his debut film, Brick in 2005. After directing the sci-fi action thriller Looper and three riveting episodes of the popular television series, Breaking Bad, Johnson was given the most coveted job in Hollywood, directing Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, which went on to be well-received and moderately successful (ha). Johnson has proven himself to be a master of smart content and visual brilliance with a keen awareness of audience appeal. His films are not pretentious or overloaded, they are smart and funny and serve both audience and story perfectly. Knives Out, which he wrote and directed, is yet another example of Johnson’s many talents.
And then there is the cast. And here is the only negative thing I can say about Knives Out. When you have a cast this big and this good, there is just no way to give each actor enough to do, so there is no doubt that you will feel as if someone was given short shrift. Even so, however, we are gifted with Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Christopher Plummer, Daniel Craig, LaKeith Stanfield and Toni Collette all in one movie, so there’s not much to not be happy about, even if some have much bigger parts than others. Everyone is good, but I must say the standouts for me are Chris Evans, who does some incredible sweater acting in this movie, and newcomer Ana de Armas, who absolutely holds her own with this intimidating cast.
But I have to say the true star of Knives Out, despite its brilliant screenplay, excellent direction and hilariously committed cast, is David Crank. Yes, David Crank. Crank is the production designer and if his design isn’t at least on the short list for Academy consideration, it would be a scandal. This film is so gorgeously detailed, I already know I have to see it again, just to be in the world that Crank creates on screen. Combine it with Steve Yedlin’s moody and noir-ish cinematography, Nathan Johnson’s perfectly atmospheric score and Jeremy Woodward’s beautiful art direction, Knives Out is truly a master class in how a movie should look, sound and feel.
Sure, Knives Out is candy. Even though there is an undercurrent of socio-political commentary that is VERY current and VERY cutting, Knives Out is mostly fun, hilarious and thoroughly entertaining. It is a romp that engages your mind and is a feast for your eyes. Agatha Christie would be proud.